N.C. Supreme Court to hear lawsuit out of Blounts Creek

Published 11:28 am Friday, March 10, 2023

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The North Carolina Supreme Court will take up a case originally filed a decade ago concerning wastewater discharged into Blounts Creek.

The April 27 hearing will pit limestone mining company Martin Marietta Materials versus Sound Rivers, North Carolina Coastal Federation and Blounts Creek residents and business owners. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) is representing the environmental conservation groups. 

In 2013, the state of North Carolina issued a wastewater discharge to Martin Marietta, but the SELC challenged the permit on the basis that it failed to protect Blounts Creek. The permit would have allowed the company to build a mine in the area resulting in about 12 million gallons of wastewater (which is considered freshwater) being pumped from the mine pit into a fresh tributary in an upper portion of Blounts Creek. A tributary is a freshwater stream that flows into a larger stream or river. Blounts Creek Bay has brackish water that flows to the Pamlico River. 

SELC with Sound Rivers and the N.C. Coastal Federation challenged the permit arguing that dumping freshwater that would flow into brackish water would be harmful for the environment. Quoting the EPA and North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, Sound Rivers and the N.C. Coastal Federation say the freshwater would change the natural flow of the creek, the water’s pH levels and forever change the diversity of fish and their rich habitats. 

Executive Director of Sound Rivers, Heather Deck, said “experts have consistently testified throughout this process – the permitting process that dumping that much water into that creek will permanently change the creek…It will turn a coastal plain stream into something that looks nothing like a coastal plain stream.” 

Martin Marietta petitioned the North Carolina Supreme Court arguing Sound Rivers and the N.C. Coastal Federation did not have “standing” for a case; therefore, they should not have been able to challenge the permit. However, the Supreme Court and Appeals Court disagreed and continued with the case. 

“We want to protect citizens’ rights to challenge permits like these now and into the future, because that’s really how all of these laws were designed. We know that government sometimes gets it wrong,” Deck said. 

Not long after the permit was issued, it was voided by a North Carolina Supreme Court judge; however, it was reinstated seven years later when the state Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s ruling. By that time and since then the permit has been expired. In 2020, SELC on behalf of Sound Rivers and other stakeholders asked the Appeals Court’s decision to uphold the permit be reviewed by the state Supreme Court. 

Meaning, the Appeals Court would have allowed Martin Marietta to have a wastewater discharge permit, but SELC and Sound Rivers wanted the state Supreme Court to read the Appeals Court’s decision in hopes it could be overturned in favor of protecting the creek. 

Martin Marietta with the state of North Carolina and Sound Rivers and N.C. Coastal Federation with the SELC have been waiting three years for the state Supreme Court to hear the case which is scheduled for April 27. 

Deck said she does not anticipate the Supreme Court making a decision on the 27th. 

Reflecting on the fact that this case has been going on for a decade, Deck said it’s been challenging. “We’re just happy for getting an opportunity to finally have our day in court. I truly believe the legal system will ultimately protect not only citizens’ rights to challenge permits but protect the integrity of Blounts Creek.”